Patty Smith Hill, Writer of "Happy Birthday to You"
For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.
With the recent controversy surrounding the world's most famous birthday song, I thought it would be fitting to pay a visit to the woman who co-created it. Meet Patty Smith Hill, the woman who wrote the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You."
Along with her sister Mildred Hill, who wrote the melody, Patty penned the famous song in 1893 in Louisville, Kentucky. Back then, it was called “Good Morning to All,” and was a ditty created for teachers to sing to children as they entered the classroom each day. It went like this:
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.
Patty, the principal at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, claimed that her students and teachers adapted the song for other occasions, keeping the music but changing the lyrics. “Happy vacation to you” and “Goodbye to you” were popular ones. So was “Happy birthday to you.” The song spread, as these catchy little tunes tend to do, and before long, the entire country was using “Good morning to you” and all of its variations.
That was all fine and well until 1934, which is when the lawsuits started flying. Our own Matt Soniak wrote about the lengthy, complicated legal pursuits and catalog exchanges over here.
The most recent lawsuit alleges that the song has actually been in the public domain since 1921, and that the current owner of the rights, Warner/Chapell, owes licensees millions of dollars. That dispute is ongoing.
Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: The Hill sisters probably wouldn’t care. Mildred died in 1916, long before the song became famous, and certainly before it generated any income. And Patty had other interests.
“I never was a money grubber,” she said during the 1934 deposition, and later said that it was the publishing company that had insisted on the lawsuit. She explained that education was her main focus, which is probably a bit of an understatement—Patty went on to help form the National Association for Nursery Education and was a leader in the progressive education movement.
When she died in 1946, Patty was buried next to her songwriting sister at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Regardless of the controversy, by the way, Louisville is proud to claim "Happy Birthday" as their own. Depending on the outcome of the most recent lawsuit, they may have to change this plaque:
See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.